Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Inaugural 2015 OperaChaser Awards and Commendations

The Inaugural 2015 OperaChaser Awards and Commendations

Award for Outstanding Production, The Rabbits, Opera Australia,
Barking Gecko and Melbourne Festival
photo credit: Jon Green

As 2015 draws to a close, it's time to extend my thanks to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance and give mention to those who have contributed in sharing their artistic pursuits by nourishing their audiences with immeasurable and lasting enjoyment.

In compiling the inaugural OperaChaser Awards and Commendations, the joy of reminiscing on a year loaded with more than 70 fully staged productions at home in Melbourne and around the world is a privilege I don't take for granted. There is no ceremony, no trophy and no prize, but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who brought excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies.

2015 OperaChaser Melbourne Awards
From 18 productions and 5 concert performances*

The Rabbits: Opera Australia, Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Melbourne Festival

Concert Performance
I Puritani: Victorian Opera
featuring Jessica Pratt, Celso Albelo and conductor Richard Mills

Innovative Opera Company
Victorian Opera

Luke Leonard
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Gertrude Opera (Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival)

Male in a Supporting Role
Shane Lowrencev
as Leporello, Don Giovanni, Opera Australia

Steven Gallop
as Caspar, Der Freischütz, Melbourne Opera

Female in a Supporting Role
Jane Ede
as Countess Almaviva, The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia

Milijana Nikolic
as Princess Eboli, Don Carlos, Opera Australia


Set Design
Robert Jones
Costume Design
Gabriela Tylesova
The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Melbourne Festival

Lighting Design

* I was not in attendance at Victorian Opera's new production of The Flying Dutchman. 

2015 OperaChaser Australian Commendations
From 9 productions seen in Brisbane and Sydney.

Bajazet, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney
Male in a Lead Role
Christopher Lowrey
as Gernando, Faramondo Göttingen International Handel Festival production, Brisbane Baroque

Female in a Lead Role
Latonia Moore
as Aida, Aida, Handa and Opera Australia 
Erin Helyard

2015 OperaChaser International Commendations
From 45 productions seen in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Madrid, Munich, New York, San Francisco, St Louis, Stuttgart, Vienna and Washington.


Innovative Opera Company
The Dallas Opera

Calixto Bieto
Jenůfa, Stuttgart Opera

Male in a Lead Role
Pavol Breslik
as Nemorino, L'elisir d'amore, Zurich Opera

Female in a Lead Role 
Olga Kulchynska
as Giulietta, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Zurich Opera

Evelino Pidò
Rigoletto, Vienna State Opera

I'd also like to thank everyone who makes the front of house experience memorable so there's one more commendation I'd like to share.

Outstanding Usher
Hector at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Once again, thank you to all!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Coming out to play in extraordinary form, Cats euphoria returns to Melbourne

Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Cats is extraordinary entertainment and a plump song and dance spectacle based on T.S.Elliott's children's poems in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats from 1939. Millions already know that but I'm a little perplexed by the euphoria.

Since the show's premiere in Melbourne in 1985 it returns for the fifth time in an updated revival from London's  Palladium Theatre by director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Gillian Lynne.

Those millions are well familiar with both the show and possibly the book. It has played in cities worldwide since its premiere in London's West End in 1981, cities that I've likely visited. But where have I been? I've never taken myself out of my way nor been taken along to see it. And unless those poems were read to me predating my earliest memories, I've had no contact with the book. I rather feel very much the odd one out, much like the supposed star of the show, Grizzabella, played by Aussie pop icon, Delta Goodrem.

But this sensational Melbourne cast show that everyone's a star in Cats. Every one of the Jellicles Cats gets a voice and a chance to illuminate the audience with their exciting lives on the night of the Jellicles Ball, when their leader and sage, Old Deuteronomy, chooses one amongst them to rise to The Heaviside Layer, to be reborn into a new Jellicles life. Grizzabella, the glamourpuss outcast, is the chosen.

In her musical theatre stage debut, Delta Goodrem makes it look easy being the star of the show. There's little stage time to dilly-dally with, a song and a half to sing and a strut about the stage to look vulnerable, for which the high heels help in that regard. Sadly, the lighting doesn't. But it is Goodrem's gorgeously channeled voice, full of robust warmth and purity, that fires "Memories", a song I only ever associated with a long ago TV advertisement for long distance calling (before the ubiquitous mobile phone added FaceTime). Unashamedly, the poignancy of that commercial cemented a benchmark and Goodrem handled it with power and pride, but more could be milked of the pathos without overworking the vibrato. It didn't matter to a theatre full of fans who went berserk mid-song as her top register revved up and opened marvellously. It didn't matter because there was bucketloads of entertainment on tap to go with it.

Lashings of praise needs to be served to the rest of the cat cast who sport names far cuter and fancier than my old family pet Kitty, dance with astonishing style and gymnastic athleticism, then manage to sing almost as brilliantly while doing so. Associate director and choreographer Joanne Robinson has worked wonders with them.

Christopher Favaloro almost steals the show with precision perfect balletic splendour as the magical Mr Mistoffelees. Matt McFarlane's pulsating warmth of voice and diplomatic aplomb adds spring to Munkustrap. In Puccini-like amorous duet, Josh Piterman as Growltiger and Samantha Morley as Griddlebone elevate the moment in declaring "Abbiamo trovato l'amore" / "We have found love", and I wondered how many in the audience would take themselves off to an opera.

Sarah Kate Landy as Bombalurina and Amy Berrisford as Demeter stir up a stunningly saucy “Macavity" to the point just short of a strip-tease. The melodious and charming-voiced Ross Hannaford darts about full of boyish energy as the lean and likeable Skimbleshanks and Jason Wasley portrayed Old Deuteronomy in commanding style and tempered, charismatic voice. The list of talents goes on.

It's all so exhilarating and the tunes so catchy that, despite the generally fine diction, the verse feels tangled with the choreography, leaving little to ponder before being shoved along to the next scene. I should've read the book!

Though John Napier's single set design and its glowing full-moon backdrop remain static for the entire show, its heap of trash that arcs around and spills from the stage fringe renders a playground of superb monumentality that lends a little purpose to the feline characters within. The kaleidoscopic, kinetic lighting design keeps well-tuned to the dance routines but too much is lost in the low lux levels. Details shine, however, in the beautiful body-suited costumes with furry add-ons, especially when given the chance to see them up-close off-stage as the cats parade in the theatre aisles (where a seat is highly recommended and which services a quick exit).

Musical director Paul White created a musical soundscape as equally comforting and sumptuous as the theatre it fills on opening night. Nothing less than a live orchestra would satisfy me but the voiceover telling us so made it seem like a real privilege - perhaps it was because they were unseen (from my dress circle side seat). And the stereophonic sound quality rang with flawless delivery.

A magical, meow-wow festive finish was followed by a standing ovation. It won't be soon, but I have it in me to see Cats again. Only, in the end, when the poster star is lifted into the fly tower on an oversized tyre, I want to know this little book I was deprived of. I'll be sure to be well-versed in T.S. Elliot's seemingly delightful pussy poems next time.

Production photographs: Hagen Hopkins

Friday, December 18, 2015

A big year of opening nights ahead for opera in Melbourne for 2016

Melbourne's six opera companies are preparing a bigger, beefier year of diverse works across an array of fine city theatres in 2016 with no less than 25 fully staged productions set to hit the stages.

Everything in scale from the titanic staging of Wagner's four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, in a revival of Opera Australia's first Ring Cycle in 2013, to a small boutique staging of Malcolm Williamson's Our Man in Havana, as part of Lyric Opera of Melbourne's continuing Australian Opera Series, will invigorate local audiences with the ineffable power of opera.

As 2015 draws to a close, only Opera Australia and Victorian Opera have full details of opening nights, season runs and cast lists. Opera Australia will present three operas in the autumn season, of which Bizet's The Pearlfishers and Verdi's Luisa Miller are new productions. Victorian Opera's growth continues with a palatable mix of established repertoire and new works as they lead the way in innovation into a promising 11th year.

Melbourne Opera will kickstart the opera calendar in February with W.A. Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio but details are yet to emerge on the cast and creative team. A move from the Athenaeum Theatre to the colossal Regent Theatre for a new production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser in August is a great sign of optimism ahead.

From the smaller operatives, details are sketcky except that we know that Lyric Opera of Melbourne is building on its strengths to present three exciting productions in 2016. CitiOpera have indicated dates for their first production, Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, and we should expect a second production later in the year. 

Most pleasingly, Gertrude Opera have set dates for a return to regional Victoria for the second Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival, featuring the Australian premiere of Jake Heggie's To Hell and Back. They have also indicated both a revival of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul and David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.

Below is a list of opening nights throughout the year and links to either the production, with full details if known, or the the company's home page. Take a look and put them in your calendar.

Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede & Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold; photo Jeff Busby

Wed 3rd Feb: Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) W.A. Mozart
Melbourne Opera

Mon 15th Feb: Voyage to the Moon (2016) Calvin Bowman and Alan Curtis
Victorian Opera

Tue 1st Mar: Banquet of Secrets (2016) Paul Grabowsky and Steve Vizard
Victorian Opera

Sat 2nd Apr: Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) Richard Strauss

Tue 12th Apr: Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) Gaetano Donizetti
Victorian Opera

Tue 3rd May: La bohème (1896) Giacomo Puccini
Opera Australia

Sat 7th May: The Pearlfishers (1863) Georges Bizet
Opera Australia

Mon 16th May: Luisa Miller (1849) Giuseppe Verdi
Opera Australia

May: HMS Pinafore (1878) William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Melbourne Opera (date yet to be announced)

Mon 20th Jun: The Darkest Night
Victorian Opera

Sat 16th Jul: Cinderella (1899) Jules Massenet
Victorian Opera

Thu 28th Jul: The Pied Piper (2016) Richard Mills
Victorian Opera

Aug: Tannhäuser (1845) Richard Wagner
Melbourne Opera (date yet to be announced)

Sat 13th Aug: Laughter and Tears
Featuring Arie Antiche and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (1892) 
Victorian Opera

Fri 2nd - Sun 4th Sep: Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival
Including Jake Heggie's To Hell and Back (2006) and  Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth (1847)
Gertrude Opera (Awaiting information on further production programming)

Fri 30th Sep: Four Saints in Three Acts (1933) Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein

Oct: Anna Bolena (1830) Gaetano Donizetti
Melbourne Opera (date yet to be announced)

Mon 21st Nov: Das Rheingold (1869) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Wed 23rd Nov: Die Walkurie (1870) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Fri 25th Nov: Siegfried (1876) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Mon 28th Nov: Götterdämmerung (1876) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Details of opening dates yet to be announced:

Pygmalion (1748) Jean-Phillippe Rameau
Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Our Man in Havana (1963) Malcolm Williamson
Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Il Signor Bruschino (1813) Gioachino Rossini  
 Lyric Opera of Melbourne

The Consul (1950) Gian Carlo Menotti
Gertrude Opera

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (2002) David Lang
Gertrude Opera

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Los Angeles Opera's magnificently sung and other-worldly Norma

Two striking leads, soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, share the stage in Los Angeles Opera's magnificently cast and fiercely sung new production directed by Anne Bogart.

Angela Meade as Norma and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa
Despite the two leads and two characters having no familial connection, what is achieved is a remarkable pairing of artists in a work set ablaze with emotional conflicts, forgiveness and ineffable love which unfold in spectacular and dramatic fashion. Norma and Adalgisa have secretly broken their vow of virginity, are in love with the same man and in bed with the occupying enemy, the Roman Consul Pollione.

Meade and Barton seem to work from within and together in order to create a perceived sibling relationship full of intensity as only siblings know. In the subsequent fleshing out of unfolding events their attention to vocal detail is palpable and their unity in performance is sublime.

Meade portrays Norma with such verisimilitude that her final self-sacrificial act of death feels in accord with the immense potency she expresses in her character's complexities. Meade does so with a precious vocal instrument that impresses both technically and dramatically. In Meade's Norma we feel her wavering emotional state and her outwardly stalwart determination before she allows us to feel at peace with her own final atonement and death-walk to the pyre. From the start, Meade imbues confidence in her performance with a meditative and thrilling rendition of the opera's bel canto pinnacle, "Casta diva", all the way from recitative through to aria and cabaletta. The voice has staying-power, is agile and luscious, and the many register shifts are counterbalanced gloriously with range of volume and depth of colour.

Russell Thomas and Angela Meade 
At Meade's side, Barton is no shadow as Adalgisa. Recent winner of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award, Barton matches Meade's resilience with a polished and creamy mezzo-soprano. Plump with exciting expressivity and sympathetic control when blending in duets and ensemble, Barton's delectable talents are poignantly on show in Act II's duet with Meade in "Mira, o Norma" as the two melt harmoniously into song as Aldalgisa compels Norma to show empathy for her children before the two make a heartfelt declaration of friendship.

In an imposing Los Angeles Opera debut, Russell Thomas portrays a formidable and adrenalised, battle-ready Pollione, infusing his ember-warm and whipping resonant tenor with a cooling, attractive vibrato. Morris Robinson is a reckoning cornerstone as Oroveso, Norma's father and head of the Druids, with his thunderous, granular and stout bass. Young artists Lacey Jo Benter and Rafael Moras fill the roles of Clotilde and Flavio respectively with finely voiced, admirable performances. The Los Angeles Opera Chorus particularly impress with perceptible individual flights of voice and collective fluidity as the impatient men and women of Gaul.

Although a clear sense of contrast and conflict pervade the work, Anne Bogart's direction is characterised by a well-intended duality of approach but limps along and lacks sophistication. A softly stylised choreographed flow, danced by the young virginal priestesses (choreographed by Barney O'Hanlon), occasionally seeps into the gestures of the cast who otherwise move with weighted-down majesty. Even Norma's two children are curiously choreographed as she raises the dagger in a vengeful act of borderline insanity before throwing her weapon down in self-loathing.

Angela Meade at right as Norma with the Los Angeles Opera Chorus
The duality continues, but successfully so, in Neil Patel's visually minimalistic and single set design that is both economical, intelligent and striking. Norma's 50-100 B.C. setting in Gaul is given an other-worldly light. A curving solid wall with rectilinear openings on stage left appears to symbolise the Roman occupation of Gaul's contrasting lightweight natural timber construction on stage right. Much of the drama and ritual becomes focused on a disc-shaped cutout in the warped, timber-ramped central stage area that appears at times to be the enormous moon in the background's shadow, perfectly juxtaposing the 'grove's' ritual significance. Duane Schuler's lighting design adds mystical depth and James Schuette's costumes pay period homage.

Conducting in the pit, the indefatigable Los Angeles Opera Music Director, James Conlon, sculptured glowing, sympathetic and appealing musical support for his on-stage artists. The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra spun their beauty with tautness, the strings and woodwind in particular displaying impeccable underlying energy. If anything, Maestro Conlon kept a lid on musical volatility, punctuating the score sparingly while providing generous space for the large voices to project across their entire range. It was only in Act II's climactic run when the lid truly lifted off and percussive largesse overflowed.

Despite the production's occasional inertness, the magnificence of the voices complete the dramatic narrative with overwhelming strength and, combined with its contemplative visual beauty, this Norma soars heavenly high.

Production photographs: Ken Howard

Friday, December 4, 2015

A blissfull union of comedy and music in Pinchgut Opera's L'Amant Jaloux

In 1778, a sparkling comedic opera received its premiere in France at Versailles. André Grétry's L’Amant Jaloux (The Jealous Lover) enthralled for near on 50 subsequent years but it was not until Thursday night, some 237 years later, that it tickled an audience in theatrical form Down Under.

Alexandra Oomens, Jessica Aszodi and Celeste Lazarenko
Sydney's Pinchgut Opera have a knack for resurrecting the neglected, showing no interest in the sweets of popular repertoire - the less performed or the more obscure baroque and early classical work, the more intriguing they seem to become. It's a point of difference from any other opera company in the country and it offers unique marketability. With it, the now reliable quality and vitality of Pinchgut Opera's productions bring enormous appeal.  L’Amant Jaloux is no different.

The three-act opera is a petite music box of glittering arias and ensembles full of vivid colour, fascinating depth and a delightful freshness that melts away any preconceptions that only the big names of the musical firmament possessed genius and originality.

Both at the harpsichord and conducting, Erin Helyard's authority over Ghétry's music allowed it to leap with energetic beauty. Helyard conducts as if every note emanates from his fingertips and he stands amongst the finest conductors who contribute to the pleasure of 'watching' music.

On opening night, the 27 musicians of The Orchestra of the Antipodes transferred his energy with exquisite shape and precision, as well as providing affecting support for six sensational, well-cast soloists who brought harmonising strength in voice and humour.

Jessica Aszodi as Jacinte and David Greco as Lopez
Baritone David Greco entertains as the wealthy and smug merchant, Lopez, with a voice of broad smokey appeal that billows with pomposity. At just 20 years old, Léonore, Lopez's widowed daughter (who he wants to prevent from remarrying), is fervently performed by Celeste Lazarenko. With unattractive traces of spoilt girlishness as she stomps about her room, Lazarenko charms with expressive acting, a secure, crystalline soprano and pulsating coloratura. Don Alonze is her jealous lover to whom Ed Lyon mustered the immaturity of a child and the passion of bullfighter while thrusting forth his adrenalin-charged, legato-rich and warm tenor.

Don Alonze's sister and Léonore's friend Isabelle is daintily portrayed by the sweet soprano-voiced Alexandra Oomens. Isabelle takes refuge in the Lopez home after fleeing from her guardian with the aid of the French soldier Florival who Andrew Goodwin endears with bumbling boyishness accompanied by a gorgeously radiant tenor. And running about while running the household and just about the entire opera with acute bubbliness as the maid Jacinte, soprano Jessica Aszodi impresses across a vocal range as hearty as it is lucent.

Léonore's patience with Don Alonze's jealousy is put to the test as is his awareness of having to curtail it. Everyone hopes for something but only in a maelstrom is resolution achieved. Contentment isn't handed over on silver platter and change doesn't come easy.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber guides the story with clarity, eliciting exaggerated gestures and pantomime-like expression from his cast in a marvellous period piece presented with vibrantly coloured, quirkily proportioned attire by costume designer Christie Milton.

Set designer David Fleischer shapes the stage area with an obliquely set, high-panelled wall punctured with concealed doorways and cupboards which provide ample hidey-holes for quick escapes - often not quick enough. After a marginally trepidatious start to Act I's parlour setting, the dramatic and comedic flow settles into gear, reaching its best form in Act II as the action shifts into comedic crossfire in Léonore's bedroom.

Every musical moment soars and each soloist found every skerrick of character portrayal with ease when soaked in the French-sung music. But the recitative-empty English raw word, delivered with an array of accents, sometimes felt disconnected. It's a small quibble which, despite the production's enamouring charm, also highlighted how successful L'Amant Jaloux could be if presented with an updated, contemporary or abstract shot.

With two stunning entr'actes cleverly blended with the scene changes, featuring Stephen Lalor on mandolin in the Hummel's Mandolin Concerto in G major and Melissa Farrow on baroque flute in Grétry's own Flute Concerto in C major, the musical richness and comic delights on stage united as blissfully as the happy ending brings.

Production photographs: Prudence Upton

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Great Scott! Skyrocketing bel canto in The Dallas Opera's world premiere of Jake Heggie's latest opera

Artists in the rehearsal room for Rosa Dolorosa in Great Scott
Maybe, just maybe, the art of bel canto singing can skyrocket in the context of contemporary opera. Great Scott, The Dallas Opera's formidable new commission of Terrence McNally's story and libretto, with music by Jake Heggie, certainly makes it possible.

In the manner of Rossini and others, Heggie employs bel canto composition in the service of a fictional never-performed long-lost opera score, for which fictional opera star Arden Scott is determined to make a success of during a triumphant return to her hometown. Her discovery of the 1835 work Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, by fictional composer Vittorio Bazzetti, makes for a fascinating story, one which centres around various corridors of American Opera (seemingly representative of American opera companies and the risks they face). In it, we get a peep at the behind-the-scenes chaos, its assortment of temperaments and the intricacies that drive artistic passion. Great Scott is amusing but not a comedy, its clever, sometimes indulgent and a tad poignant. It's also a work of geodesic-like interconnections, a confident work with its own uniqueness and, for its world premiere, a stellar cast gave it a remarkable outing.

In Act I, American Opera is rehearsing Bazzetti's work and Joyce DiDonato, for whom the role of as Arden Scott was created, sings to impress. While seemingly at play with her voice, DiDonato catapults the art of coloratura, singing with unbounded joy through highly expressive vocal shifts with rich textures and a fountain of effervescence. Doing so, she aims her sling-shot fun at ballsy co-star and diva-hungry Uzbekistani (or thereabouts) Tatyana Bakst, spectacularly sung and bubbly acted by Ailyn Pérez. If that's what opera singers are doing in rehearsal, an audience needs to hear more of that on the stage in modern opera. Even though it's trepidatiously employed for a fictional opera, Heggie seems to have opened the door for bel canto, giving it modernity like never before as part of contemporary storytelling.

Nathan Gunn and Joyce DiDonato
Much is riding on the success of American Opera's Rosa Dolorosa. It's a risky operatic venture that mimics the travails and excitement of risk-taking choices, much what could mimic The Dallas Opera's initiative in staging Great Scott.

Heggie's musical brew even seems to root the story in the geographic epicentre of the USA, gratefully writing an overture that begins with a sprawling sense of space and uncluttered beauty. Later, with rousing brassy Sousa-like pageantry, American football and patriotic fare is celebrated. It feels very much like it starts in Dallas for which conductor Patrick Summers demonstrated the music's strength with an overtly tempered ardour.

The bel canto premiere has to compete with Super Bowl on opening night and everybody is hopeful of a victory for the Grizzlies. In the end the Grizzlies lose but Rosa Dolorosa succeeds, even though for Scott it is accompanied by thorny issues to deal with on a personal level. Scott reconnects with an old flame, architect Sid Taylor, sung with broad muscularity by Nathan Gunn. And though written for her, Scott loses out to Bakst for the title role of a new opera, Medea Refracted. Her dressing room becomes steeped in poignant reflections on love, loss and success, and all the while the tattooed DiDonato gives her both classy sassiness and modern believability.

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade
The three-hours over two acts can feel too long in its first viewing. Outside the bel canto style, the vocal line rises naturally off the music. McNally makes them understood with a casual, uncensored language of today though occasionally the unexpected humour falls on an nonreactive musical line and a few icky lines make an attempt to cover every possible modern dilemma. The audience needn't be told "the world needs food, health, peace and beauty."

Director Jack O'Brien evokes real-time sensibility and ease, supported truthfully with simple but functional modern rectilinear spaces, minimal trappings and day-to-day streetwear (but rather drably robed Pompeian streetwear for Rosa Dolorosa) by set and costume designer Bob Crowley. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design adds realistic edge while Elaine J. McCarthy's projection designs do service to creating a football stadium and opera theatre within the confines of the stage.

The opera-within-an-opera scenes sometime feel like filler, gorgeously sung as they are, but the artists of the company endear and their performances stick memorably. After another settling orchestral opening for Act II from Heggie, "The Star-Spangled Banner" gets an amusing take from Bakst. If the audience stood for Pérez's botched up but vocally searing rendition, it wouldn't have been surprising. As Winnie Flato (Artistic Director of American Opera), Frederica von Stade makes a solid return to the stage and her opera company, with her opening night post-performance speech after Rosa Dolorosa able to bring tears.

Kevin Burdette, as the conductor Eric Gold, portrays the one eye on music and the other on stage manager Roane Heckle with bland appeal. Then doubling as the ghost of Bazzetti, Burdette gives powerful weight and commanding vocal dimension to the supernatural in what could have been a blundering insertion to the opera. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is perpetually shining as the ever hard-working, loveable and hip Roane Heckle. As the good-natured tussling tenor and baritone pair Anthony Candolino and Wendell Swann, Rodell Rosel and Michael Mayes deliver a complimentarily entertaining act and young Mark Hancock courageously overcomes the demands of the stage with shouts of "Vesuvio sta per scoppiare" as Sid Taylor's son though his skateboarding across the opera-within-an-opera stage in Great Scott's final moment bemused.

Ailyn Pérez as Tatyana Bakst singing "The Star-Spangled Banner"
With Rosa Dolorosa brought to the stage, it's hard seeing it become the success it was but that's part of the amusement. Opera, like all the arts, is a difficult medium to gauge presumptions about how its audience will respond. But for Great Scott, its gift is very much its ability to get under the skin, a wanting to analyse its raison d'être, its highs and lows and intricate structure. With three world premieres of works commissioned by The Dallas Opera alone this year, a winning formula prevails and with it, the sense that opera and Super Bowl can comfortably coexist for seasons to come.

Production photos: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

CitiOpera's La Cenerentola delights with unstoppable vitality at Hawthorn Arts Centre

Kristen Leich as Cinderella and Henry Choo as Prince Ramiro
There is no fairy godmother, no pumpkin transformed into an ornate carriage and no glass slippers in the familiar story of the beautiful young cinder-stained girl called Cinderella in Gioachino Rossini's version, La Cenerentola which premiered in Rome in 1817. Rossini took the magic wand-waving out and instilled comedic realism, but the unmistakeable rags to riches story of liberation from persecution and forgiveness of perpetrator remain deeply on show.

Small independent opera company CitiOpera's new production of La Cenerentola from director Theresa Borg turned the spacious hall of Hawthorn Arts Centre's detailed Victorian classicism into a party-like atmosphere. Borg not only maintains the manic entertaining sharpness of Rossini's two-act operatic dramma giocoso but recycles the story yet again while turning up the frivolity with a delightfully tacky appeal.

With a party-hat-dressed orchestra, a stage festooned with streamers, balloons and fairly lights, and costumes seemingly inspired by the luridly bright fluorescence of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, set and costume designs by Marc McIntyre dazzle and lighting designer Daniel Jow's restless cocktail of colours is a feastly dramatic knockout. It's all achieved effectively on a shoestring, and lots of plastic, paper and rubber.

Taking the drama off the raised proscenium stage to include entrances up the central aisle and from a small balcony, Borg's utilisation of the hall injects an unstoppable vitality to the pacing.

Genevieve Dickson, Carolina Biasoli and Adrian McEniery
It's not entirely clear but Don Magnifico appears to be the lazy and lecherous owner of a tawdry club and his two tarted up, self-obsessed daughters his club hostesses. Stepdaughter Cinderella is one of the premise's chorus of cleaners and her Prince Ramiro, disguised as a valet, is nothing more than a knockabout Mr Nice Guy, comfortable in his Game of Thrones T-shirt, and who appears oblivious to class division. His "servant" Dandini pulls of the charm in disguise as the "prince" and the tutor Alidoro is disguised as a leggy dishevelled drag queen.

Jacopo Ferretti's libretto is sung in Italian and peppered with dialogue in today's English. Despite the royal titles and endearingly fuzzy interpretation on stage, the recycled tale works well. The result is magically applaudable, one where wealth and rank is relative but finding true happiness and escape from persecution is paramount. The bottom line, however, is fun and a zero tolerance for mediocrity is evident.

A splendidly sung and orchestrally rich opening night made certain of that. Occasional loss of projection and imbalances in voice delivery and timing wafted into opening night during ensemble pieces (and a few precarious headpieces and cardboard props wobbled) but the ear was treated to overall beauty.

Kristen Leich as Cinderella
As Cinderella, Kristen Leich gives one of opera's scintillating mezzo-soprano coloratura roles star quality. A soulful, melancholic-dark tone in the voice's lower range captured the persecuted Cinderella marvellously. Leich opened the voice smoothly in the middle and upper range and pleasantly paced her impeccably shaped ornamentation to expose her character's determination and dreams. In Acts II's extended aria "Nacqui all'affanno ... Non piu mesta" Leich reached higher to cut through the orchestra with fluid cyclic register changes in a sensational coloratura display, navigating her way in her zany tulle and clear plastic gown lit up by fairy lights (put together out of the recycling green bin by Alidoro's generous good taste).

It's momentarily uncertain who the guy in the cap and sleeveless padded jacket is when he strays down the central aisle, but he turns out to be part of the cast. In disguise as the valet Dandini, Henry Choo as Prince Ramiro then sets forth with a performance of engaging strength and focus. Young Choo's vocal expertise improves with every new role he tackles and here a personal best seemed on show. An immediate warmth of tone and convincing interpretive attack shone brilliantly in his tenor and, in duet with Leich's Cinderella the pair's chemistry and vocal blending was well-honed. Even their comical dance with golden broomsticks elevated the romance as much as the kiss cementing their union.

Led by a chorus of street sweepers down the central aisle as the disguised "prince", Michael Lampard stepped into his status high position with alacrity as Dandini, his richly burnished baritone impressing while guiding it through momentary insecurities with breathing. Alcohol-fuelled and gladdened by his own skimpy glam-grunge style, Matthew Thomas amusingly strutted on heels all night and sang with no-mess mastery as Alidoro.

Act 1 scene, La Cenerentola
Adrian McEniery made a portentous, ill-mannered Don Magnifico while roaring out Rossini's robust pitter-patter treats. Those ill-manners sometimes overpowered in ensemble but his character could forgivingly steal anything. Genevieve Dickson and Carolina Biasoli, as stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, managed to get through opening night with the most unmanageable costumes and headpieces with brighter, more harmonised singing the more their hopes of a "royal" marriage was doomed. A chorus of females took easily to the task in voice and broom with a pair of solid male voices curiously planted off-stage beside the orchestra.

Conducting around 20 musicians with celebratory flare, CitiOpera's Artistic Director Trevor Jones dished up Rossini in bucketloads of style. Rossini's recycled overture from his opera La Gazzetta was energised for a magnificent start on opening night and one's attention was easily drawn to the thunderous solid fortes, crispness of tones and thrilling crescendoes throughout. The dancing, textured strings and elegant brass playing were particularly satisfying.

It's CitiOpera's second outing this year at the Hawthorn Arts Centre after presenting a fiery and passionate Cavalleria Rusticana, a sign perhaps that the small independent company's itinerancy will settle there for the medium term. I hope so because it's a fine venue and CitiOpera is looking mighty comfortable in it.

Production Photographs courtesy of CitiOpera

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sydney Chamber Opera's masterfully honoured contemporary work of Malouf's Fly Away Peter

Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall, 
One named Peter, one named Paul. 
Fly away, Peter! Fly away, Paul! 
Come back, Peter! Come back, Paul!

Brenton Spiteri as Ashley Crowther
This simple nursery rhyme is the first association I make with the title of Australian author David Malouf's 1982 novel, Fly Away Peter. Despite there being no protagonist in the novel called Peter, its central character, Jim Saddler, has a deep understanding of bird life and 'flies' on a journey beyond the safety of the 'wall' to the Western Front during World War One. What once felt meaningless as a rhyme becomes a source to ponder and in Malouf's story, the ponderations are bountiful as Jim's once self-contained life takes flight.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Fly Away Peter creates a perfect companion to Malouf's novel, paralleling the contrasts of idyllic distance and distant insidious warring with touching contemporary opera-theatre.

Across its eight scenes and 75 minutes, the young Jim Saddler's ornithological knowledge and observations in the tranquility of an Australian estuary setting are abruptly rocked by newfound observations of horrific warfare that become layered with blasts of emotional ardour. Where once Jim's perspective soared above the earth with the flight of birds, his life in the trenches of war inhabits an earth that becomes the resting place of corpses. As his journey unfolds, Jim becomes cognisant of the enduring condition of dealing with identity, of war and the transience of his own life.

The work premiered at Sydney's Carriageworks Theatre in May and despite its relevance in the ANZAC centennial year, the work never feels locked to the specifics of war. Instead, a captivating cerebral depiction is attained which director Imara Savage and the creative team have masterfully honoured.

Pierce Wilcox's engaging and thoughtfully condensed libretto is assisted with a poetically sculptured vocal line. Within its directness, the listing of dozens of eloquently rolled bird names colour the picture, then, in war, are affectingly replaced by the names of soldier mates.

With neither climactic sweep nor pompous dramatic demarcations, Elliott Gyger's music washes the story with a restless heartbeat within ebbs and flows of time, more a music that seeps into, rather than strike, the listener. Dappled with the squawks, chirps and chit-chat of bird-life recreated in music, a remarkable energetic soundscape is constructed by the seven musicians tended expertly by conductor Jack Symonds.

A gentle respect between music, voice and emotion play out, its three roles beautifully filled by artists at one with their character. The fluctuating intensities of the more poetic vocal lines appropriately belong to the introspective Jim Saddler, touchingly portrayed with freshness and polish by Mitchell Riley. Brenton Spiteri stretches his role not only as the privileged but kind landowner Ashley Crowther, but as several soldiers on the battlefield. Spiteri's charismatic warmth and vocal agility adds priceless weight and his maturing excellence is clearly evident. As the nature photographer Imogen Harcourt, Jessica Aszodi sings with exciting vocal brightness and feeling, and when not exposed to the foreground of war, moves about the stage with focused sensitivity. All three characters are united by a passionate bond which transcends class and sex while forging the most admirable attributes of humanity to which movement director Lucas Jervies gives full attention to with poignancy.

Jessica Aszodi as Imogen Harcourt
The amphitheatre-styled Arts Centre Melbourne Fairfax Studio's performance space highlighted the staging rewardingly. Nothing more than an asymmetrical stepped podium is employed by Elizabeth Gadsby's set design, yet nothing feels lost in its metaphorical associations of a riverbank, a summit or even as a stone grave top. Gadsby's costume designs continue the simplistic visual stream with everyday casual wear and Verity Hampson's lighting design deftly snaps each of the eight scenes with varied shafts of golden light in a low intensity lit field.

Dozens of blue buckets are gradually carried out as the only props. At first, their random placement on the stage might symbolise the soldiers on the battlefield. Through time, they are manoeuvred steadily into measured rows to represent first the lines of planted crops as life continues around battle, then both powerfully and unmistakably, the headstones of the fallen. Some contain clay that the cast of three smear themselves with, in a nod to the disappearance of the present and one's eventual return to dust. The overall staging achieves remarkable sense of grandness which connects the audience with hand-reaching ease.

As part of the Melbourne Festival and only with three performances, the work sits comfortably alone. But Gyger and Wilcox's initial intention for it to form a companion piece to Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale of 1918 lends even further possibility for the work to resonate in the future for a more fully programmed evening.

Less importantly, as youngsters, my brother Peter and I, Paul, were the 'two little dickie birds' of the family. I wasn't exactly comfortable with being a 'dickie', but now I can at least see being 'dicke' with a completely fresh perspective.

Production photographs: Susannah Wimberley

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival: Herald Sun Review

Opera Australia and Barking Theatre Company's The Rabbits: Herald Sun Review

Friday, October 16, 2015

Going gaga over Gheorghiu at Hamer Hall, Melbourne

Angela Gheorghiu and Tiberiu Soare
For any vocal artist, preparations including deep breathing, relaxation of the muscles, adequate rest and an understanding of the work would be expected before a performance. Readying for the likes of Romanian soprano sensation Angela Gheorghiu, an audience might also benefit by similar preparations, in order to revel in the best possible experience. The dividends would pay off, for Gheorghiu's artistry is not to be taken halfheartedly.

In Australia recently for the first time to give three recitals, Gheorghiu made a striking entrance on Melbourne's Hamer Hall stage after two excerpts from Händel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks". In a soft powdery pink pleated gown, her glistening black hair spun tightly, her deportment was regal. But when Romanian conductor Tiberiu Soare lifted his arms to release the first bars of music alongside her, I sensed unease in the eyes and in her voice as she slipped into her opening aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Händel's Rinaldo. Within seconds, her hand made hesitant reaches to the music stand. Soon after, her heels got caught under the train of her gown and, for a while, she fidgeted with her shawl. It was not the supremely confident diva I had seen perform at some of the world's most famous opera houses. Seemingly locked out of focus, Angela Gheorghiu appeared uncharacteristically distracted.

It was Gheorghiu's third and final concert and her only Melbourne appearance after two concerts at the Sydney Opera House, less than a week after making the long journey across half the world's time zones. Her opening said more about the demands of a diva than the pathos of her aria. It may not have helped that she was facing an audience of around 1300 in the magnificence of a concert hall that seats close to 2500. I felt Melbourne had failed her.

Following, in Jules Massenet's "Adieu notre petite table" from Manon, Gheorghiu showed off a beautifully supported pianissimo, a firmly extended voice and exposed a smashing lower register.

The recital's neatly structured program of paired arias were separated by pleasing orchestral pieces, given overall well-worked musicianship from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Concentrating on French Romantic and Italian verismo repertoire, the diva's bread and butter was on offer. Whipping it into a magic would eventually come.

Returning to the stage with a different shawl after the orchestral "Intermezzo" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Gheorghiu's profound feeling for the text showed in "Pleurez mes yeux" from Massenet's Le Cid. Occasional erratic breathing transitions impacted the fluidity but the voice took strident flight and opened up generously in the night's first part final aria, "Song to the Moon" from Antonin Dvořák's  Rusalka with deep luscious chesty strength, a seamless middle register and strong highs. The charismatic shifting colours, immense depth and striking range characteristic of Gheorghiu's voice was now blooming on stage. 

Angela Gheorghiu
After interval, the energetic orchestral  oomph of the "Aragonaise" from Bizet's Carmen set a new pace. Gheorghiu emerged more relaxed, brimming with smiles. In a plush reddy-pink gown and hair loose, an assured and confident voice then melted the moment in "Un bel di vedremo" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, a supremely eloquent dance on the vocal line was matched by the seductress' dance around the conductor's podium, Soare's eyes becoming increasingly tricked by her whereabouts and Gheorghiu becoming less and less attached to the music stand. Signing off the two aria progression with a wide outstretched wave, Gheorghiu accelerated to the stars.

After the night's buzzing orchestral highlight, George Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody op.11 nr.1 in A Major", Gheorghiu returned in a sleek black gown featuring an extravagant ruffled equine-like mane that formed the gown's rear. The glamorous show of various costume changes seemed to fire up an increasingly compelling performance.

The spell-binding beauty of Gheorghiu's complete artistry was to come with two final Puccini arias, "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca followed by "Sola perduta, abbandonata" from Manon Lescaut, the first given full dramatic deployment, the latter, and final aria of the program, explosive emotional force.

Three encores followed, a pure Puccini superlative rendition of "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi, a tender folk-style Romanian a capella that seemed to reduce the hall's enormity to a salon, and concluding with a cheeky entrance to sing the zesty "Granada".

Gheorghiu achieved much this night. She more than satisfied an audience going gaga that had waited so long for the chance to see her on our stage. But above all, Gheorghiu demonstrated how the voice of art transcends life's rigorous demands for which no recording could ever capture.

Photographs courtesy of Angela Gheorghiu's website

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Floria Tosca and China's Three Tenors vie for the limelight at Opera Hong Kong

Wie Song, Warren Mok and Dai Yuqiang as the three Cavaradossi
Opera Hong Kong presented a novel way of spicing up an old favourite in their recent production of Puccini's Tosca. It wasn't enough to rely on a strong cast of singers and a technically polished orchestra to propel the tragedy of Floria Tosca's eventual suicidal leap from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo. No, alongside internationally acclaimed soprano He Hui as Tosca, Opera Hong Kong matched each of the opera's three acts with a Cavaradossi taken on by China's Three Tenors: Wei Song, Dai Yuqiang and Artistic Director and producer, Warren Mok. If that wasn't enough, even more surprisingly, Cavaradossi's notable Act III aria, "E lucevan le stelle" turned into a dawning ground-hog day of chuckles as each of the tenors took their turn in stamping their mark before the trio came together to belt out the last lightning phrase. It was to be an opening and closing night highlight. Sadly, Puccini's enduring work came awfully close to being served up as a dog's breakfast.

The diversion stunted a beautiful but otherwise conventional staging by director, set and lighting designer Enrico Castiglione's production which harks from the Taormina Opera Festival. Vivid colours, evocative architectural elements and ornate detailing formed a powerful backdrop. Sonia Cammarata's refined costumes shimmered but lacked the worn realism of French-occupied 1800 Rome. Castiglione's lighting charged the drama thoughtfully but sudden and inexplicable extreme lighting shifts snapped one's attention from the performances. Tensions existed in the visual whole.

He Hui and Warren Mok
He Hui surmounted all. The delectable fullness and strength of Hui's soprano rang clear, only diminished by an early tussle with the orchestra. Hui's dark and creamy lower range complimented Tosca's coercive and jealous streak while her lucent trills and crisp high notes that of the popular singer's confidence. Her Tosca was elegant and theatrical, and fortunately, blindly in love with each of her Cavaradossi. The power of her performance elicited an engagement akin to exposing a mirror to her thoughts, notably, while in the entrapment of Scarpia's offices at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II's moment of weakness and subsequent flash decision to save herself from his lustful advances. As she reflects on her fate in "Vissi d'arte", her religiousness struck by God's seeming abandonment, Hui was compelling, impassioned and on her knees in a distressing portrayal of hopelessness. With perfect diction, effortless breathing and eloquently phrased, razor-sliced top notes and unwavering sustained extension, Hui's technique appeared flawless.

China's Three Tenors supported Hui well as a curiously clean-of-paint and distinguished Cavaradossi. The shift from one to the next in itself was handled well by all, but the opportunity to engage in one artist's vocal and dramatic progression through the opera felt encumbered. Wei Song's early forced attack settled to reveal resonant warmth and appealing vibrato. Warren Mok's leaner, simmering but brighter tone pleasingly matched Cavaradossi's resistance to torture and Dai Yuqiang's grounded, fullness of sound carried inbuilt determination. All three demonstrated flair in driving home all the big notes.

Sebastion Catana's wide experience in the role of Scarpia showed impeccably. Full of heaving weight and ferocity, the voice was sharpened with all the evil of Hell. Other fine performances were given by Freddie Tong as the agitated escapee Angelotti, Sammy Chien as a doddery, bent-over Sacristan and Chen Yong's especially impressive and aggressive Spoletta.

Opera Hong Kong's Tosca: Act I, Te Deum
Opera Hong Kong Chorus and Children's Chorus sounded their very best, the vocal parts beautifully layered and attentiveness to timing, exemplary in the thrilling depth of Act I's mighty "Te Deum", courtesy of chorus director Alex Tam's preparedness. Puccini's score resonated with eloquence under conductor Gianluca Martinenghi and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra obliged with fine musicianship. The music's dramatic rushes of intensity on the strings, however, begged more.

Opera Hong Kong is capable of achieving the highest standards through seriously insightful productions and without resorting to gimmicks. Two recent productions, Faust and The Flying Dutchman, soared in excellence across all criteria. This was a faux pas. When China's Three Tenors want to sing together, it would be best to keep them apart from the same role in the same opera. Thank goodness there was the sense to have in-between performances presented in a typical, intended manner.

Production photos: Opera Hong Kong

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A delightful, adventuresome jaunt with The Grumpiest Boy in the World

It's a finely sung evening in the Briddling household as seven-year, four-month old Zachary (Jacob Lawrence) is making his frustrations known to Mum (Shakira Tsindos) and Dad (Matan Franco) while the family pet dog goofily entertains. Zachary is just very ordinary and wants to be more amazing than a kid whose crayon drawings adorn the family fridge.

Jacob Lawrence as Zachary and the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus

In Victorian Opera's world premiere of a homegrown work, The Grumpiest Boy in the World, a little bit of magic was made at Malthouse's Merlyn Theatre. It's a delightfully adventuresome jaunt from the living room to a world of fantasy that reintroduces ourselves to a comfort zone we often ignore. 

The true and deeper beauty of its story lies in its ability to bridge perceived differences with simple commonalities between all peoples, all the while realised with child-to-adult engagement. It's a struggle for individuality, for finding ourselves, and a victory for the collective in one fantastic adventure. It's also just lots of fun and continues Victorian Opera's investment in opera's future using the resources of its remarkable youth.

From composer Joseph Twist and librettist Finegan Kruckemeyer, two Australians each successfully shaping their work internationally, a music of pulsing melodic variation intertwines easily with the skilfully direct simplicity of the writing, based on Kruckemeyer's own play.

Director Cameron Menzies responds to the work's neatness, exercising his youthful cast to create drama full of vitality and rich in details that, for the most part, ticks along seamlessly. On opening night, a mightily well-rehearsed cast must have made Menzies proud, especially when moving about in swarms with startling blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed. 

Menzies is colourfully assisted by designer Chloe Greaves' delicious costumes, a giant pair of sneakers, a striped brigade of cheerleading youth, of little Zachary critters and the IKEA-honed eye of casual living that spans the globe, can unpack in a whisker and that gives the production understated power. Spanning the stage from kitchen to family room, the world of Zachary Briddling is one that is fast marching across the world in its own sameness, yet one in which we demand to express difference. Joe Mercurio's lighting design obediently adds mood. 

Jacob Lawrence as Zachary Briddling 
As Zachary, Jacob Lawrence disguises his tall, athletic leanness well to convince with boyish charm, darting across the stage with the changeability of the wind. Lawrence, who alternates in the role with Alastair Cooper-Golec, sings with chesty warmth, crystal clarity and confidence to match. I was caught at times feeling this grumpy kid feels a tad overly pushed into endearing territory but, on the contrary, it helps to understand that only Zachary needs to believe he is the "superest thing" and the "grumpiest king" in order to feel a sense of self-worth which he finds in Grumptown. 

The energetic, attentive cast perform as if to win the audience heart, and they do. More than 30 members of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus feature in a crisply sung and stylistically choreographed ensemble. They are ably supported by Simon Bruckard's thoughtful conducting which drew smooth, precise playing from a small band of nine musicians of Orchestra Victoria on opening night, a credit to his work as a Developing Artist with Victorian Opera.

Other notably strong performances come from Kiran Rajasingam as Scientist 1, Stephen Marsh as Grump 1 and Lizzie Barrow, whose feathery rich voice fluttered high as Bird.

In less than 50 minutes it's all over when the King of Grump triumphs, but there's a certain feeling his story in music will live to reign over many a theatre to come.

Production Photographs: Charlie Kinross

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A vocally arresting Luisa Miller at San Francisco Opera

Directed by Francesca Zambello, San Francisco Opera's current production of Luisa Miller premiered in the 2000/01 season. It's revival fifteen years later seems a trifling amount of time for an opera that sits at the perimeter of repertory choices but it presents great confidence in the dramatic merit of Verdi's middle period romantic tragedy which premiered in 1849 at the Teatro San Carlo. On virtually every level it's a refreshingly stylistic and visually absorbing production, vocally arresting and musically strident.

Director Francesca Zambello's Luisa Miller 
In Verdi's adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller's 1784 play (Intrigue and Love), dramatic segueing requires astute handling. Verdi gives enough potent vocal expressivity to his characters in building belief to overcome otherwise often improbable coincidences of characters being in the right place at the most unlikely time. Zambello obliges, successfully giving the drama an energetic flow and interspersing it with dance-like gestures and captivating silhouetted vignettes for dynamic effect.

A sensitive cohesion exists between Zambello's directorship and set designer Michael Yeargan's elegant minimalism featuring a sweeping alpine forested diorama that identifies its Tyrolean setting and which opens for various entrance effects. A cantilevered beam which cuts through it, and on which slides a large canvas portraying scene-specific associations, is curiously successful in its use.

Dunya Ramicova's costume designs delineate the classes with such striking thematic vivacity that their beauty can be excused for their sanitised division of the classes. The peasant villagers celebrate in a spectrum of pastels, the ruling class parade in shimmering crimson and soldiers are distinguished in emerald. Gary Marder's lighting design adds appropriate emotional colour and dramatic scale and is used to great effect for casting intriguing projected shadows. Visually, the eyes are delightfully, sometimes deceitfully, dazzled.

Leah Crocetto as Luisa and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo
How the village girl Luisa Miller and Rodolfo meet is unknown but Luisa is initially unaware that Rodolfo is the son of Count Walter. When their relationship is revealed, their love is trodden by atrocious self-interest as the classes become embroiled in the affair. Luisa is a well-loved popular member of her community but her effervescent contentment is torn away. In her distress, her psychological state is challenged by both a self-sacrificing act to save her father and her own self-preservation, even if that means contemplation of suicide.

As Luisa, Leah Crocetto nails the shifting emotional corners of character with her luscious and powerful soprano. Opening brightly with "Lo vidi e 'l primo palpito", Crocetto impresses with shining cyclical top notes. A clean and mighty coloratura is on display in Act II's "Tu puniscimi, O Signore" and an urgent, surging lower range in "A brani, a brani, o perfido". Vocally, from Act III's "La tomba è un letto sparso di fiori" through to the subsequent finale, Crocetto is unfaltering in her delivery and receptiveness to her circumstances.

American tenor Michael Fabiano's role debut as Rodolfo is steeped in thrilling and masterly vocal technique and accompanied by acting of the most operatically convincing. In Act II's "Quando le sere al placido", Fabiano's passionately warm and fluid style and elegant open top is intoxicating as he recalls happier times with Luisa. And nothing is ever lost in his exhilarating iron-strength recitatives.

But neither Fabiano nor Crocetto are helped by Act III's more dubious events. Rodolfo enters the Miller home, calls Luisa a whore (believing she has deceived him and plans to marry the Count's henchman Wurm), slips poison in a cup, drinks it unbeknownst to Luisa and then gives it to her. A villainous, violent side emerges in Rodolfo which goes unnoticed by Luisa, as does the fact that having just happily saved herself from suicide, she appears content in the throws of a poisonous death. Clearer direction and a little more attention to the acting in the slow-crawling last moments could have elevated the finale immensely.

Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller and Leah Crocetto as Luisa
As Luisa's father, Baritone Vitaliy Bilyy is excellent, imbuing Miller with demonstrative fatherly love and understanding, protective in the face of danger and sympathetic in Luisa's pain. Bilyy deftly shapes his expansive sound and liquid warmth of tone while thrusting his vocal line with wholehearted meaning.

The remaining cast give solid performances. Daniel Sumegi's broad-ranged guttural bass gives aloof authority to Count Walter. The dark and threatening bass of Andrea Silvestrelli bonded magnificently with the lurking and plotting of the evil-eye Wurm. And as Federica enters on a life-size black stallion statue (to a few chuckles), in order to secure the man she has loved since childhood (Rodolfo), Ekaterina Semenchuk brought the sophistication and demeanour of privileged upbringing with stylishly dusky mezzo-soprano aplomb.

The fine-voiced San Francisco Opera Chorus are unified and energetic but I couldn't help but wish that their large numbers were reduced to a smaller ensemble in the opening act and employed more fittingly across the stage in the Act I finale.

Whilst Luisa Miller might not garner the sympathetic reactions and intimate immediacy achieved in Verdi's 4-year later La traviata, it has much dramatic and contemporary relevance, and music that nonetheless matches it. With Nicola Luisotti conducting, Luisa's story is told in its most heartrending way and he shows complete understanding of both the potential of Verdi's score and the attention to his onstage artists. The undulations and depth of sound was golden and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded with magnificence.

The next time I meet Luisa again will be here in my hometown when Opera Australia's new production opens early next year. She deserves the attention she's gaining.

Production photographs: Cory Weaver